If you ask any professional writer what the hardest thing is about the writing process, what is most discouraging, what kicks you in the stomach harder than a donkey flipping out on bad mushrooms, they will tell you it’s the day you get your edits back from your editor. Or the day you get feedback from you mentor, or beta reader, or writers’ group, or grammar-nazi of a grandmother. Seeing all those marks, all that red and crossing out is enough to make even the toughest penmonkey do one of two things: a) curl up into a ball in a corner, or; b) plan the number of ways they can get back at the bastards who popped their ‘I’m an awesome writer’ bubble. Sometimes it’s so hard you want to give it all up and go back to your previous and more attainable dream of being an astronaut and riding space monkeys through the cosmos.
When you get feedback you always have to weigh up how right it actually is, how much experience the beta reader has and whether or not you trust that experience. For example, though she means well and has a strong grasp of language from the era where you’d get rapped on the knuckles by a cane if you got it wrong, my grammar-nazi of a grandmother would probably have less understanding of what I was writing (How exactly are these horses flying? You do realise this is physically impossible. One rap for overactive imagination) than my mentor Isobelle who is one of Australia’s most awarded fantasy authors.
It’s tough to know when you should stand your ground and when your ego is getting in the way of a good story. I use the below classification to help me make the decision on what to change:
- Is the piece of feedback from a person whose lifelong passion and profession is editing? If yes, then they probably know what they’re talking about, weigh their words highly.
- Is this piece of feedback from someone who claims they are awesome at editing (they even have the degree!) but haven’t actually ever had a job as a proper editor? Then I’d take their words with a grain of salt, technical knowledge doesn’t always translate, particularly if you’re writing genre rather than high-brow literary fiction.
- Is the feedback from an author who has won at least three awards for their work? Ditto on the they-probably-know-what-they’re-talking-about scale.
- When you look at that piece of feedback, do you instantly recognise that’s exactly what you manuscripts needs but previously you couldn’t: a) articulate what had to change; b) admit it needed changing because you’d already rewritten that section ten times and frankly you were about ready make your manuscript into a paper hat instead. Well now you’ve had some distance from the piece and some outside perspective, so hop to that editing.
- Is the feedback from a reader of that genre? Then while I wouldn’t take their nitty-gritty line edits as gospel, I would be paying attention to any part where they didn’t understand exactly what was happening, or they didn’t connect with a main character.
- Is the feedback from a reader who doesn’t normally read that genre (hello mum!)? Ok, so you can probably ignore the ‘I don’t understand how that airship flies or how piranhas are carnivorous alien’ comments, lest you start over explaining things, and focus more on the comments where they say they can’t see the scene, or get a clear image of a character. These comments are going to let you know if your character motivations and sense of place are coming though clearly.
But there will always be instances where you just don’t agree with a comment, because frankly, you understand physics better than them (in my case). Or sewing, or candle stick making, or the decomposition of human bodies, or penetration depth of cactus needles into the human buttock. There is no rule written, unwritten, or carved into stone that says you can’t argue with edits from a person of high esteem, if you have a valid reason. Not because you like the word, or the sentence, or that smart-arse one line, but because it is exactly the right word or action or character motivation or fact.
It was very rare that I disagreed with the edits and suggestions offered by Isobelle (well…once I’d calmed down and stopped plotting the number of ways I could do damage with a pen), but the below are two cases where I was adamant that these were the right words and descriptions for that moment:
A thread of light streaked from the line in his fingers as though following some invisible trajectory. It arced swiftly like a wave through water from one cave to the next before connecting with the hilt of Charlie’s weapon.
~ Priori - Draft
A wave would not arc. This description does not work because you cannot imagine a line of light moving in an arc, which is not like a wave unless it widens and flattens, in which case say that. Try to find a better way to describe its movement. When in doubt, simplify and use strong, clear, basic words, add the frills later if you feel you need them.
~ Isobelle Carmody
Lifting his arm to chest height, the boy pinched the space in front of him and a short glowing line appeared from thin air. His other hand clenched a neck charm hanging around his throat. Muttering, he flicked his finger, jerking the glowing string taut. A thread of light streaked from the line, as though following some invisible trajectory. It arced like a speeding wave before connecting with Charlie’s weapon. The sword went flying across the room.
~ Priori – Rewrite
You’ll note that while I did simplify the sentence, I did not in fact remove the word ‘arc’. That is because I know from both maths and physics that the waves come in more forms than waves through water , they come as sin and cos waves, they come in waveforms of sound, all of which are made up of arcs of various radiuses linked together. Even a wave through water when shown in cross section moves in massive concave and convex arcs. This glowing line of magic is essentially travelling like a sin wave through the air, and as sin waves are not called that (or even known or studied) in this fantasy world, the word ‘arc’ does quite nicely to describe this particular movement.
The violent tremor pitched me forward, the shaking earth squealing and groaning in protest.
~ Priori - Draft
Squealing is too strange a word to use- unless there is an explanation why it would sound like that.
~ Isobelle Carmody
Having worked in mining for almost three years and having studied geology for four, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that rocks do in fact squeal as they scrape with extreme force against each other. It is akin to the sound of nails on a blackboard and happens much more frequently than ‘groaning’ in a high stress environment. It is not the sound you want to hear whether you’re underground or above ground because it means you are in deep doo-doo.
While you should never let ego get in the way of a good story, there are some things you are going to feel strongly about. Weigh your experience against the experience of the person giving you feedback, and if yours has the hospital bills and cactus pockmarks to prove it, don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
How do you judge which edits to incorporate and which to leave alone? Leave a comment below!
Images: Sin wave by Omegatron